Academia and unions' silence threatening democratic gains

In the 1980s, Kenya took a turn for worse when the bustling economy characterised by a well-distributed production system that leveraged regional advantages suddenly fizzled.

While the larger central region produced tea, milk and coffee, the Rift Valley led in maize and cereals. Western was the sugar belt while Nyanza produced cotton. The coast was famed for tourism and nuts while the eastern and northern regions for cattle. There were industrial hubs in Nairobi, Kisumu, Ruiru and Mombasa. 

Even the fallout between Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga left the Kisumu Cotton Mills running. All these dynamic ventures around the country ran aground for various reasons then.

It is noteworthy that this led to a rebellion by individuals but quickly morphed into dynamic movement drawing in the religious community, academics, human rights activists, lawyers, students and peasants clamouring for change. The wheel of democracy did not stop with the repeal of Section 2A which made Kenya a one-party State. 

The campaign for structural change went a gear up with calls for the repeal of the imperial presidency. In 1997, the Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group cobbled up a set of reforms establishing a more level playing ground for all parties.

Then five years later, there was a change of political regime in the country with President Mwai Kibaki taking power.

The march for democracy went on until the enactment of the new Constitution in 2010, notwithstanding the progress made under the Kibaki administration. For Kenya, democracy is a work in progress. Our political transformation has been characterised by sustained efforts to continuously improve the conduct of politics and the management of the State.

However, following the enactment of the Constitution, devolution of power and decentralisation of State to constitutional commissions, a creeping disinterest is eating into the hunger for excellence characteristic of Kenyans in the last 30 years.

Where universities were the bedrock for the clamour for change as advocated by Kivutha Kibwana, James Orengo and Anyang Nyong'o, among others, academics have taken the backseat in the national discourse. Even the recent far-reaching changes in university financing have not triggered academics. Coming on the heels of the disorderly change from 8-4-4 to competency-based curriculum, all ears, eyes and minds in the universities should be working overtime to critique and improve the new policies or discount them altogether.

The labour unions, which were late to show even in the quest for the new Constitution, have crept into the woodwork as workers are battered by new taxes, levies and inflation. Threatened with layoffs, workers have gone mute as the government hammers them in all directions.

With the exception of a few murmurs from a section of the clergy, the religious community has also gone mute as the flock stares at despair. The believers are not heard as draconian measures are enacted purportedly to raise funds to feed an ever-rising appetite of a government preaching water but swimming in wine. It is a feature of the new structural adjustment programme that only the public pay the price but the government swims in opulence.

Other professional bodies like the Institute of Engineers and the Institution of Surveyors, among others, have also put their minds on the money to the exclusion of public interest. 

The government is on an international deal-making spree mortgaging national resources without reference to anyone. How these will impact the people and the country can only be assessed by professionals. 

The much-touted Government-to-government fuel deal has left Kenya paying the highest price for petrol without stopping the slide of the shilling as originally claimed.  All climate change finance deals involving the transfer or surrender of local resources to foreign interests must be audited for fidelity to the law and our national interest.

It is high time we breathed new life into the alliance of civil society, academia, the professions and the public to keep an eye on government action or inaction. The worst actions are often spiced with good intentions. We should be especially wary of repeating the error of Lenana in signing away our sovereignty in search of short-term relief from economic pressures. 

Dr Kingi is senior lecturer, Technical University of Mombasa